Learning Values in a Tough Time
WTF?!: A sociologist’s untraditional traditional approach.


Yes, the title has “WTF”in it. But it’s not quite what you think. “Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless” is Christine B. Whelan’s focus, lesson, and goal in her new book Generation WTF: From What the #$%&! to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You: Advice on How to Get There from Experts and WTFers Just Like You, published by Templeton Press. Whelan, a visiting assistant professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Pittsburgh, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the joys of self-discipline, thrift, and an honest day’s work, the dangers of co-habitation, and other advice, philosophy — and marketing — behind WTF.


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why would you ever title a book with “WTF”? Why would Templeton let you?

Christine Whelan: For two decades, Americans believed the only direction was up: Housing prices rose, the stock market climbed ever higher, and individual spending soared. Popular wisdom lauded those who took risks, not those who saved their pennies: Materialism beat out thrift, instant gratification was cooler than self-control, and the runaway self-help bestseller of 2006, The Secret, told us that all we had to do was think about success hard enough and it would magically find its way to us.

Into this optimistic bull market a generation of children were born and raised and came of age. They were given many names — the Millennials, the DotNet kids, the Trophy Generation, or Generation Me — and were raised to expect a future of limitless possibilities. As children of the youngest Baby Boomers, this group of more than 40 million young Americans born between 1979 and 1993 were reared on self-esteem, materialism, and technology. The result? An optimistic, entitled, impatient, multitasking group. In study after study, Millennials reported that their major life goals were to be rich and famous — and that they believed it was likely this would happen.

Their parents, on the whole, tended to encourage these attitudes. Born in the 1950s and ’60s, these young Boomers maxed out their credit cards to pay for the latest gadgets, eagerly accepted no-money-down loans for homes and cars they couldn’t afford, and, especially among the better educated and more affluent of this cohort, invested nearly limitless energy in molding their children into the perfect applicants for top universities, whatever the cost.

Then, in the fall of 2008, the zeitgeist changed: The stock market plummeted, jobless rates rose — and the era of seemingly never-ending prosperity came to a screeching halt. Restaurants replaced their $150 tasting menus with $30 prix fixe options, companies “downsized,” eliminating jobs in nearly every sector of the economy, and families canceled holiday-travel plans as they searched for fun on a limited budget. By the end of the year, some 60 percent of Americans reported they were “struggling,” according to the Gallup well-being index. Time didn’t heal all wounds: 2009 wasn’t much better, with unemployment topping 10 percent and disillusionment about the after-effects of big-ticket corporate bailouts. As a nation, we felt out of control. As individuals, we tried to figure out how we’d stay afloat if times got tougher.

And our trophy kids were in a state of shock. For those looking toward college, there was new panic about how to afford such costly education. For those in college, job prospects after graduation were bleak. As one young man said to me, “It was like, WTF. I mean, what just happened here? The rug just got pulled out from under us and suddenly you want us to become these resilient, frugal people? How?”

“WTF” is a crass exclamation of frustration commonly heard among a generation of young adults raised with expectations of affluence — only to come of age in an economic recession. Yet this is also an optimistic generation headed for a bright future — if they learn the timeless, virtue-based self-management and interpersonal skills needed to succeed. The idea was to rebrand this crass expression into one of virtue-based empowerment for a wise, tenacious, and fearless future.

I wanted to make the book approachable and relatable from the start. I didn’t want to be the schoolmarm telling them to sit up straight. Talking in language that young adults understand, without talking down to them — or dumbing it down — is what’s important.


Lopez: What age range are you most focused on?

Whelan: 18-to-25-year-olds. The book is great for graduating high-school students heading to college, those looking for an edge in college, and graduating seniors facing a tough job market. But it’s also an excellent kick in the rear end for the recent grad who has been sitting on your couch for the last two months.